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Pontifications on Poison

Being some ramblings on events associated with poisonous plants.

Friday 19th August 2011

If you've arrived here from Pregnancy Forum UK see this blog post for pictures of deadly nightshade and St John's wort side by side.

I’ve mentioned before that I have a number of daily Google alerts that are supposed to give me the latest items on the Internet for the search term concerned. ‘Items’ rather than news because you can set the alert to give you any or multiple types of webpage; news, web, blogs, etc.

It’s impossible to know how well these alerts work since you’d be trying to find out what new information had appeared but not been detected by Google and I don’t know how you’d go about that. So, I’m always aware that the alerts may not be giving the full story.

The other quirk is that the results displayed are, sometimes, quite a lot older than you’d expect from a daily update. I suppose that could be because the item has only just been indexed by Google and, possibly, that is an indication of its lack of importance.

Today, my alert for ‘poisonous plant’ produced an article published in May on a site which doesn’t have any explanation, that I can find, of what its intention is. It’s on a template base and a lot of the template hasn’t been completed, further evidence that it is not an active site. So, why am I bothering to write about a piece that, it seems, very few people will have read in the nearly four months it has been online?

If I’m honest, it’s because, for the first time since I started this blog in June, I couldn’t find anything else to write about. I’m still wrestling with trying to understand where fairies and witches overlap, meaning that some plant folklore is applied to fairies in one part of the world and witches in another. Until the wrestling is finished my attempts to distil the story into 800, or so, words have failed.

Atropa belladonna, deadly nightshade

Atropa belladonna, deadly nightshade

I thought about writing up a story concerning increasing deaths of heroin users because of the effects of ‘cutting’ heroin to increase criminal profits but that’s a pretty distressing tale of the stupidity of current drug laws so I’ll leave that for another time.

All of which left me with a short ‘article’, the site concerned seeming to be shy of the term ‘blog post’, about Atropa belladonna in homeopathy. Before getting to the specifics of deadly nightshade, it’s worth repeating that there is no connection between herbal medicine and homeopathy. You’d think that was simple enough to understand but, it seems, it isn’t.

I can understand a layman conflating the two if he hasn’t done any reading but I have read ‘proper’ homeopaths offering ‘evidence’ for homeopathy based on trials using herbal medicine.

So, herbal medicine is where you take a plant extract and make a medicine with it. When you swallow that medicine you are ingesting actual plant chemicals in a measurable amount. That’s not to say that those chemicals will have an effect on the condition they are said to treat. That’s a different issue, which is worth a brief detour.

Digitalis, foxglove

Digitalis, foxglove

There is no doubt that some plant extracts have an observable effect on the human body ad that, in some cases, the observed effect is remedial for the condition being treated. But, not all of them do and not all plant extracts used as medicine, are ‘herbal’ medicine. Extracts from the Digitalis genus, to take one example, are widely used to treat heart conditions but never described as ‘herbal’. They are part of mainstream medicine.

You have to ask yourself why, if an herbal remedy is provably efficacious, it hasn’t become a medicine in the way that Digitalis has. I’ve heard the argument about drug companies not wanting to promote things they can’t patent and exploit for profit and there may be something to it. After all, if the effect of Vitex agnus castus, the chaste tree, on hormone production could be fully demonstrated, you would have the probability that a number of companies would exploit it and not have the benefits of monopoly profits.

But where, I think, that argument falls down is when you look at the size of the herbal remedies market where multiple suppliers seem to have successful businesses in spite of supplying the same non-patented products.

But, back to Atropa belladonna and homeopathy. The ‘how can a poison be used be used in homeopathy?’ question is a frequent one and there is a two part answer. The first part is that small doses of a poison don’t necessarily cause poisoning. Go back to Digitalis; it is well-known that the dose required to cause a fatal heart attack is quite small and patients using it medicinally need to be warned about the danger of overdose and monitored closely. So, it would be perfectly possible to create an herbal remedy containing too little deadly nightshade to cause symptoms of poisoning.

The second part of the answer is that a homeopathic preparation of Atropa belladonna contains none of the plant. Homeopathy is all about dilution. You make a one in one hundred solution of a plant substance then you take one part of that and dilute it one in a hundred. And you go on doing that anything up to another 28 times. The ‘xc’ printed on the label of homeopathic products tells you how many dilutions have been made. 6c is the least you will come across but homeopathists believe that the higher the dilution, the better the product so you often see 30c and some products are diluted to 60c.

Vitex agnus castus, chaste tree

Vitex agnus castus, chaste tree

When the dilution is complete, the manufacturer will take one drop of the solution and drip it onto a sugar pill. When the water has evaporated, the pill is the homeopathic ‘medicine’. Statistically, the chance of the one drop used to make the sugar pill you just took containing a single molecule of the ‘active’ ingredient is extraordinarily slight.

These days, chance is often described in terms of comparison to the chance of winning the lottery. In those terms, finding a molecule of a chemical from deadly nightshade in a homeopathic remedy labelled ‘belladonna’ is about as likely as winning the lottery jackpot. Twice. In consecutive weeks.

All of the above is well-known about homeopathy but it cannot be repeated enough because there are still plenty of people who will condemn ‘big pharma’ for its alleged determination to sell products regardless of patient benefit and then espouse those who sell sugar pills that were once slightly damp with a drop of water.

The reason for writing about it, other than, as I said, finding the other possible topics wouldn’t flow today, is that the item I read took the illogic of homeopathy to new heights. Most articles about homeopathy deny mathematics to claim that a small dilution of the substance remains. The piece I read today actually said that ‘not a single molecule of the active ingredient can be found in the solution in its final form’. But it still went on to claim ‘evidence indicates that homeopathic remedies work’.

When I’m giving one of my talks and the audience is laughing at some of stupid things our ancestors believed about plants, I always wonder how many of them believe in the stupidity that is homeopathy.